How the unspoken rule of Sydney Harbour drove Victoria to high honours

Like many Sydneysiders, Victoria King grew up against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour, spending countless weekend hours wandering through its mangroves and foreshores.

On these walks, there was just one “unspoken” rule. No one ever touched the water.

Victoria King, prize-winning architect in front of Goat Island in Sydney.

Victoria King, prize-winning architect in front of Goat Island in Sydney.Credit:Isabella Porras

“I didn’t really question it,” Ms King, 25, said. “It wasn’t until I began researching why that unspoken rule existed that I uncovered the disturbing truth.”

The harbour is contaminated. More than 200 years of industry has exposed it to metals, organic waste and microplastics, the Sydney Institute of Marine Science says.

Ms King, who went to Melbourne University to do her architecture Masters under the supervision of Professors Gini Lee and Alan Pert, knew something had to be done. So she made the harbour – its past, present and future – the focus of her final-year research.

Now her project, Surface Tension, has won one of the world’s most prestigious student prizes, the Royal Institute of British Architects Silver Medal. The prize has been recognising top architecture work since 1836.

Victoria King's schematic of Snapper Island, which was a naval training base in the 19th century.

Victoria King’s schematic of Snapper Island, which was a naval training base in the 19th century. Credit:Victoria King

Ms King focused on three contaminated sites from around the Sydney estuary, each of them with an industrial past.

Drawing plans to pull down old buildings would have been easy. But for Ms King, it wasn’t an option.

“[There’s a] realisation in the contemporary context of the need to reuse and not to demolish.”

Instead, she proposed ways to transform the sites, acknowledging their history while using them to ensure the harbour’s future health.

One of Ms King’s sites was Snapper Island, an abandoned outcrop in the inner harbour, slowly being recolonised by seafowl.

But long ago, the island was a naval training base, engineered into the layout of a ship. Its crowning feature was a huge ship’s mast, now lost.

In Ms King’s proposal, a mast-like tower again looms over the island – but now as an observation post for scientists studying the seafowl population.

“[I wanted to] utilise [the site’s] existing condition as the prompts for generating a new type of infrastructure for the harbour,” Ms King said.

“[The idea was] to keep these sites responsible for their contribution to the destruction of what was once a pristine environment.”

The other two sites would also be transformed into marine science stations under Ms King’s plans.

Snapper Island now and how it would look under Victoria King's proposals.

Snapper Island now and how it would look under Victoria King’s proposals. Credit:Victoria King

Goat Island, once a shipyard and arsenal, would become a microplastics filtering station.

The final site was a stretch of sea floor near Balls Head. Currently empty, the area has been flagged as a storage site for toxic sediment dredged up by the Western Harbour Tunnel project.

For that site, Ms King designed a monitoring station to keep track of sediment leakage, modelled on the nautical waypoints of years gone by.

Marine scientist Katherine Dafforn says a handful of government-run water quality stations already exist. But more permanent research posts would be welcome.

“Regular, ongoing monitoring would be fantastic,” Ms Dafforn said. “We have a lot of events that happen. If we’re not out there surveying the Harbour, we don’t know the effects.”

Recent ash-falls, caused by the bushfires encircling Sydney, are a case in point.

“A lot of [the ash] is going to make its way into our waterways,” Ms Dafforn said. “It’s unknown how it will affect things. It carries carbon, it carries metal. There’s some evidence that it might increase mercury levels.”

But on the whole, the Harbour’s future is looking bright.

“Since industry got regulated in the 70s we’ve seen improvements,” Ms Dafforn said. Animal populations are returning, including crustaceans and worms that filter out harmful sediment.

Ms King is now working at a Sydney architecture firm, but wants to return to harbour research one day.

“The work is endless,” she said. “[It’s] such fascinating microcosm of how you engage collaboratively. How can different stakeholders work together to acknowledge the layered history of the sites?”